The Apostles

The Apostles, Op.49

Amanda Roocroft (soprano)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor)
Alan Opie (baritone)
James Rutherford (bass-baritone)
Peter Rose (bass)

City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 18 August, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

It was in Birmingham that Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius” (1900), “The Apostles” (1903) and “The Kingdom” (1906) were first performed. The first of these is not an oratorio, said Elgar, but something unclassifiable, whereas he did offer ‘oratorio’ as appellations to both “The Apostles” and “The Kingdom”, the two completed parts of a projected trilogy – the third, “The Last Judgement”, was never written despite the composer’s continued thoughts (into the 1920s) about the project.

In the year that is ‘Elgar 150’, it was fitting that musical forces from Birmingham should bring “The Apostles” to an extended (i.e. broadcast-to) audience thanks to the patronage of the BBC Proms; not as a token gesture of ‘historical association’ but as demonstrative proof of Sakari Oramo’s devotion to Elgar and that he and his City of Birmingham singers and players have been championing this composer’s choral music in recent seasons both as separate events and, this year, offering Birmingham these three magnum opuses on consecutive evenings.

Oramo and Company have recently recorded ‘Gerontius’, an impressive studio affair now available on the CBSO’s own label (a release that includes Enigma Variations). It would be apt if they now went on to document “The Apostles”, for the strongest possible case was made for it at this Proms performance – although maybe this account could be issued? – for in its century of existence “The Apostles” has only been recorded complete twice: conducted by Boult for EMI and by Hickox for Chandos – further proof that “The Apostles” is a very rare beast, and to underline the work’s neglect in terms of performance, “The Apostles” has had only one previous Proms outing, in 1998 led by Sir Andrew Davis, although a conversation with a friend prior to this Proms rendition revealed that he has attended about twenty concerts of it since 1958 – including those conducted by Groves (Liverpool), Rozhdestvensky (London, with BBC forces) and at the Three Choirs Festival (naturally enough).

Given the quality of this Birmingham realisation it is difficult to understand why “The Apostles” is seemingly so disregarded and, indeed, music that may remain relatively uncharted territory even for the Elgar devotee. True, it is not a particularly dramatic work – certainly when compared with ‘Gerontius’ – and tends to be more a commentary on events rather than bringing them alive. Yet, Elgar’s harmonic adventurousness is itself of perpetual interest, as is his subtle, variegated and precisely imagined orchestral coloration; and rather than be ‘tarred’ with the charge of parochialism in terms of being ‘English Choral Music’ there can be no doubt as to Wagner’s influence, for “The Apostles” exudes a “Parsifal”-like radiance – underlined by Elgar’s luminous scoring – a propensity for slow-burning fulfilment that doesn’t sacrifice a continuous and developing narrative.

Sakari Oramo’s sense of pace, shape and climax seemed completely convincing, and he drew a response from his musicians that was superbly prepared and experienced. The large chorus (trained by Simon Halsey) sang with enviable unanimity of ensemble and of pitch, a carefully graduated tonal resource and crystal-clear enunciation, whether opening out in the fullest passages or creating a magical sense of ‘distance’. The orchestra also brought sensitivity to Elgar’s complex writing, especially those interweaving strands of sound that are both exposed yet also a delicate part of the mosaic, and paraded Elgar’s foray into ‘local colour’ and spectral decoration with exact balance and pointed precision; the off-stage instruments (two oboes, a cor anglais and even a shofar – Elgar didn’t short-change himself in requiring a large orchestra) were ideal in terms of perspective. Julian Wilkins’s mastery of the Royal Albert Hall organ was apparent through floor-shaking bass foundations, ceremonial bursts of resplendence, confiding layers of sound and numerous registrations that always seemed apt in their colours.

As he shows in his CBSO recording of ‘Gerontius’, Oramo has the knack of knocking several minutes off of ‘average timings’ without ever suggesting rush or bringing charges of forcing the pace. It seems that Oramo has dismissed Boult’s 1973-74 recording of “The Apostles” (the first) as being of “stoical stodginess” (not a criticism normally levelled at Sir Adrian!) but a comparison of timings is interesting: Boult (no slouch) takes approximately 71 and 51 minutes respectively for the oratorio’s two parts; in this Proms performance, Oramo took 61 and 47 and seemed perfectly judged (certainly persuasive) in this regard.

A stellar sextet of singers was gathered here – it should be noted that for the first performance, which he conducted, Elgar was keen to enlist the services of certain celebrated (and non-British) Wagner-singers of the day (he failed) – and those chosen for the Proms were each impressive, not least Alan Opie (magnificently sonorous as Jesus), Amanda Roocroft (lucent as The Blessed Virgin and The Angel Gabriel) and Catherine Wyn-Rogers (imposing as Mary Magdalene); with Anthony Dean Griffey (John), Peter Rose (Peter) and James Rutherford (Judas) making an apostolic trio, the latter given a meaty role of traitorousness and self-recrimination.

Musically, and with Wagnerisms aside, except the unifying Leitmotifs, Elgar looks back to ‘Gerontius’ and anticipates “The Kingdom” (already in the planning stage as “The Apostles” was composed) as well as the ‘mystical’ creations of Vaughan Williams and, even, the direct communion of Tippett: the gently swinging refrain (suggesting optimism and faith) that Elgar conjures for “Turn you to the stronghold…” (to end ‘Part One’) has an unassuming naivety that seems to presage (now) Tippett’s use of Spirituals in “A Child of Our Time”.

While one can doubt Elgar’s self-written text, be concerned over the sectional design of “The Apostles” and question the composer’s complete identity with certain aspects (and characters) of the recounting, there is no doubt of the compelling power of the score, especially when the listener is drawn into it as a communal experience and in a performance such as this that realised its scale and intimacy (even in the expanse of the Albert Hall) with innate mastery and unaffected dedication.

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